Central Coast Magazine
Most marriages don’t last half as long as Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan have been playing acoustic blues together. Their successful partnership has lasted nearly three decades. Fortunately for their legions of devoted fans, the Santa Barbara-based musicians intend to keep on pickin’ and singing together for a long time to come.
Consummate musicians and savvy businessmen, they play at festivals all over the world. They’ve performed with some of the finest musicians today, from The Allman Brothers and the Beach Boys to Emmylou Harris, Bo Diddley, Jackson Browne and B.B. King. Yet, they can still be seen on an occasional Sunday at Cold Spring Tavern, in the mountains above Santa Barbara. They once called the tavern “our own little Bronson,” after that musical mecca in Missouri.
The tavern, originally a stagecoach stop on San Marcos Pass, is their favorite stage. On any Sunday afternoon you’ll find an eclectic mix of folks hanging out there: tourists, bikers, Vespa riders, blues enthusiasts, you name it. Tom’s strong vocals and blues harmonica blend effortlessly with Kenny’s virtuoso fingering on guitar. On a clear, sunny day, there’s nothing better than drinking a beer on the patio and listening to Tom and Kenny belt out the blues.
“It isn’t a bar and you really don’t get that bar feeling,” Kenny says. They realized a long time ago that scene wouldn’t sustain them long-term. “If we had stayed doing bar gigs, this career would have been over a long time ago.” Adds Tom, “We made a conscious decision to cut that all out and save ourselves for the good stuff,” which turns out to be good for the rest of us.
Today, they play mostly before large festival crowds around the country and travel to Europe every summer to play and teach. In addition to the albums and CDs they have done together (eight, plus a live 20th anniversary CD) and individually (Tom has three solo CDs; Kenny, two), both have produced instructional DVDs and books and Kenny teaches guitar and Tom teaches harmonica. Tom has even written a novel, the humorous The Marty Graw Book, published in 2002. They also have written for movies and TV, and produced commercials. In fact, they just finished a public service announcement for the county of Santa Barbara about the importance of being “green.” Tom sings the part of a green recycling bin.
The secret of their collaborative success seems to lie in their ability to harmonize, in more ways than one. “It works. We get along. We’re musically compatible. We’re friends,” says Tom.
After all these years, they have their performance down to a science, according to Kenny, who says, “We make it look fun, we make it look easy. That’s professionalism." Their many fans would agree.
The two maintain, however, that it is more than professional success that keeps them going. “There is this feeling you get when you’re performing that you can’t get anywhere else,” Kenny says. Tom elaborates, “There’s a certain adrenalin rush, and when you nail it, you get flush with the adrenalin. I've seen the Taj Mahal, the Louvre, the Cliffs of Moher, the Mona Lisa. But nothing I've seen visually -- whether natural or manmade -- ever made me break out in goosebumps. Yet I can remember, as a youth, a concert where Ray Charles' voice gave me gooseflesh from head to toe. There is something about music that captures you.”
Kenny concurs; though they may do a gig every day, the enchantment of playing music keeps the job new and fun.: “My brother is an artist and musician, and he turned me on to it. It’s called ‘playing’ for a reason. I don’t perceive it as work.”
“It beats having a real job,” Tom says. “There are not a lot of people who can say they love their job.” After nearly 30 years (next year) it is clear these guys are among the lucky few. The fans who have enjoyed Tom and Kenny's music have also been fortunate - and they needn't worry about their luck running out. “I never think of retiring,” says Kenny. Tom agrees: “You do it (play music) because that’s who you are.”
(See these blues-incarnate brothers at Cold Spring Tavern or check out their Web site, www.tomballkennysultan.com, for more shows and information.)